What Happens When Members of Congress Are Targeted

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Two congressmen say they'll start carrying guns in their hometowns following the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Heath Schuler says Giffords's shooting has reminded him not to "let [his] guard down"--the North Carolina Democrat received a serious death threat in 2009, and he's encouraging staffers to get their own permits to carry concealed weapons, Politico's Erika Lovely reports. Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz says he wants to see if U.S. Marshalls could start protecting members of Congress in their districts; he also wants local police to stop by town halls more often.

But Giffords is sadly far from the first member of Congress to be a victim of shocking violence. Thirty-three years ago, Rep. Leo Ryan, a California Democrat, was murdered by a follower of Jim Jones when he tried to investigate the cult leader's compound in Guyana. Jones then led his flock in a mass suicide. Ryan was the only congressman killed while on official duty, though others have died violently for political reasons: Rep. Jonathan Cilley was killed by Rep. William Graves in a duel in 1938; Reps. Preston Brooks and Laurence Keitt nearly beat Sen. Charles Sumner to death over slavery in 1856. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assasinated in 1968, and Sen. Huey Long died from a gunshot wound in 1935.

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Just as the public wondered whether more could have been done to prevent deaths at Jonestown, today there is much debate about whether greater caution should have been exercised with partisan rhetoric (some wonder if this rhetoric could have helped inspire Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Giffords). Rep. Bob Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, plans to instroduce a bill that would make it "a federal crime to threaten or incite violence against a member of Congress or a federal official," Fox 29 reports. But maybe the urge to do something isn't one we should act on, several bloggers argue.

  • Congress Should Tread Carefully, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein cautions.
There's going to be a desire to do something in the coming days, to respond somehow. And we need to take care to make sure our response pushes us in the right direction. A simple principle, I think, is that whatever we do should emphasize our commitment to the sort of everyday democracy that Rep. Giffords and her constituents were practicing. ... [M]aking community meetings more difficult and politicians more physically distant from their constituents would be giving something important away, and it's not clear that we'd gain any real safety or security in return.
  • Expand the Marshall's Service? Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis doesn't think that'd be a good idea. It's "currently nowhere near big enough to provide security to every Member of Congress in their home districts, and I’m not sure that we’d want them to."
  • An Example of How Not to React, Gawker's Max Read writes. This "is the kind of tragedy it takes time to process. But it's not an excuse to be a idiot. ... Senseless murder is not an excuse to pass stupid laws! Anyway, freedom of speech is one of the few civil liberties Americans still kind of care about, so let's try to protect it, even if it takes the form of shittily-designed maps that tacitly encourage murder." As for congressmen packing heat, "For one thing, just from, like, a practical point of view, there's no conclusive evidence that carrying a concealed weapon will reduce crime, or provide you with effective protection. For another, the problem here isn't that Giffords didn't have a gun. It's that a crazy guy did. And, honestly, there are not many groups of people in this country whom I trust less with dangerous objects than the current Congress."
I'll just say that there are a lot of ways in which I hope this shooting will turn out not to matter much.  American democracy has thousands and thousands of politicians, all of whom, collectively, are overvillified and undercelebrated.  Alas, that's unlikely to change.  What we can hope also won't change, however, is the very ordinariness of our politicians outside of the presidency, the way they can go about their lives as ordinary citizens, meeting with their fellow citizens and neighbors not just in great democratic events like the one interrupted in Tuscon, but in casual encounters, too.
  • We've Made This Mistake Before, The National Review's Victor Davis Hanson writes of the urge to blame politics for the actions of a mad man. "In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, commentators pontificated about a right-wing 'climate of hate' in Dallas, Texas, that supposedly explained why a crazed avowed Communist--pro-Soviet, Castroite 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald--shot President Kennedy. Suddenly, this week, we are back in a 1963 mood of blaming politics for deranged shootings."
  • Politics Is No Worse than Usual, Dean Esmay writes at Dean's World. "I am generally of the opinion that politics is not–not–unusually bitter and acrimonious these days; history has a tendency to make disagreements seem to fade and past violence seem remote. That said, historically, members of Congress simply weren’t known all that well by the general public, and in the modern age that’s less and less true. Most people don’t remember it, but it’s actually pretty common to try to kill Presidents. ... I do wonder if the increasing prominence of various members of Congress means we are going to see more attempts on them in the coming decades."

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